Myths and Other Musings About the Teenage Brain

This is Brain Awareness Month and one of the areas that I find of interest as a mother of a 16 year old and professional is the new research and information available about the teenage brain.

Myth 1:  By age 12 the brain has completed its development.

Really, has anyone ever thought this was true?  The brain has not completed its development by age 12.  Just watch your child from year to year and note how their interests and thoughts change.  I love to remind my daughter that the CD or music download she had to have last year or type of fashion is not what she is at all interested in this year.  And when she rereads a book or sees a movie again she often finds the message and grandeur that she first experienced changed or she feels differently compelled by the piece.  Besides summarizing what she has seen and heard she is able to make inferences and give opinions based on other experiences and information she holds.  She can raise important questions about information that is missing or that she would like to know more about. 

Myth 2:  The brain structure between children and adults is the same.

With our new imaging technology we can better observe the brain, and there are reports of growth and changes taking place until age 20.  The frontal lobe which is involved in planning, organizing, and impulse control is one of the last brain centers to mature.  Hmmm – could this be an explanation for messy rooms, jumping into less than safe situations, and the love of spontaneity?  Not being able to think about consequences before acting, logic & reasoning, and planning all lag behind other intellectual skills.

There is also evidence that efficiency and connectivity may mature during the teen years as well with pruning away of unused synapses (connections in the brain) and strengthening of other pathways.  There is also evidence that parts of the brain thin due to this pruning effect.  Have you noticed how well practiced skills take a nice leap forward at this age in your child?   Maybe you notice a change in sports, dance or music training?  Devotion to skill building with memory and advanced reading typically pay off at this time, because concepts start to be associated in ways beyond how they were introduced and vocabulary blossoms at the same time.

Myth 3:  Teens love drama. 

Emotional responses are stronger during the teen years as well.  Neurotransmissions related to the brain’s reward center may be less tempered by the frontal lobe, which overrides the limbic system which controls emotions.  I literally can recall my daughter Sally saying something rude and hurtful to me and pushing me away but seconds later hugging me for support and comfort.  Teens overall may perceive the information more urgently and intensely than is appropriate.  Think of your teen that over reacts to what they have heard from you or friends very dramatically.  Teens do not always show self – awareness of their vocal tone or body language or read this correctly in others.  High emotionality may also relate to feeling the need to fit in.  Think of the teen that is laughing along with the others but really doesn’t get the joke.  Teens may not create drama intentionally; however, they have a harder time regulating how their brains work.  Patience and humor may be a parent’s best friend at this time as well as some separate time for both adult and teen.  Teens with significant difficulties in this area should seek the guidance and services of a counselor or psychologist.  Speech Language Pathologists can often be helpful as well in determining if speech or cognitive processing concerns are present, which could frustrate your child and/or affect his or her self-esteem.

The development of the brain is still occurring in the teen years, forming many of the connections that will differentiate teen behavior from the independent and competent adult they will become.  Your teens’ brain is active and changing.  It is an important to structure experiences for your child to enhance prefrontal cognitive growth by working on decision making, patterning, logic and reasoning, impulse control, and self-awareness.  Social language competencies are changing as well for the teen; read part 2 of this series next month for more information about the teen brain and language development.  If you are unsure if your teen’s skills with problem solving, logic and reasoning, comprehension, verbal association skills, or social pragmatics are developmentally appropriate or are truly weak please take your child to an experienced speech pathologist for an evaluation.

Myth 4:  Speech and Language skills were mastered by age 12.

This is old and inaccurate information.  Although most children master the basics of conversational skills, grammar, and sentence structures the teen years are a time of better understanding and using social communication skills frequently referred to as pragmatics.

Teens learn that communication is adapted to the audience whether that is peer, teacher, parent, sibling or stranger.  Teens are developing abstract thinking skills and are more inventive with their word choices using more slang and sayings that are relatable to their peer group only.  Teen communication, whether verbally or text almost seems like its own dialect.  At the same time because of this more complex language there is greater social and academic distancing between the kids who are developing these skills and those children who demonstrate deficits in these areas.

Both in auditory and reading comprehension teens are developing understanding of inference and ability to predict.  This is an important time to address understanding of inferences, predictions, inconsistencies in thought, and how to read more technical information that before the teen years was not addressed in such depth.  Because lectures and reading assignments require rapid understanding and association skills if a teen’s skills are not developing in this area they will get left behind.

In previous generations it was a time of diary, essay and poetry writing and written sequencing and vocabulary flourished. With today’s texting of icons, brevity, lack of grammar and abbreviations we have a different set of writing skills that impact language development.  Sometimes your child will need exposure and therapy for learning how to ask questions, organization information and put the information to paper.

Teens merging more and more into an adult world need the verbal skills to explain their thoughts and to have the speed to organize and state their thoughts quickly.  Although during standardized testing the teen may show skills in the average range with understanding word use, and use grammar correctly they often report choking when asked a question in class or that the conversation is moving so fast they can’t contribute to it.  Often this is a speed and execution problem and can be improved.

Understanding and good use of pragmatic skills are those subtle skills that make conversations feel comfortable.  When we’re young kids we probably pay less attention to this and people are more forgiving.  Teens however should be aware of the power of eye contact, the appropriate distancing from another individual, have the ability to read another person’s non-verbal skills, and be able to initiate conversation and how to maintain and continue conversations.  I often am asked by parents about play groups for kids with some social or pragmatic deficits.  In my experience when the child is still in elementary school one on one play dates with other children who have strong communication skills will move the other child along faster than social groups, however during middle and high school direct therapy or social group interactions can be very effective.

Your teen’s brain is active and changing.  It is important to structure experiences for your child to enhance prefrontal cognitive growth by working on decision making, patterning, logic and reasoning, impulse control and self-awareness.  Social language competencies are changing as well.  Telling your child the social rules of language, discussing communication between characters in movies or on TV, role playing and direct practice will help your teen emerge with strong communication skills for language and academics.

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